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Worried About Increased Screen Time? Think About Its Quality

Step away regularly, make sure you're engaging with others and educate yourself

Woman using digital tablet at home

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En español | You thought you were spending way too much time on your smartphone, tablet, computer and television before the coronavirus pandemic. Now that you're forced to stay home, you're probably spending even more time sitting down with these screens.

Think about it. You're glued to your electronics to connect remotely with clients, colleagues and customers. Or you're consuming mindless entertainment just to avoid going stir crazy.

And while you also may be on FaceTime, Zoom or other video platforms because that's the only way to “see” family and friends, the real danger to avoid is turning screen time into an addiction.

Look at more than screens daily

5 positive uses of screen time

All the time we spend on screens may come at the expense of other behaviors that are healthier or more beneficial, says BJ Fogg, a Stanford University behavioral scientist and author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. Fogg wants to direct people on screens toward more positive pursuits: creativity, learning, nature and relationships.

Here are five of Fogg's best uses of screen time for older adults.

• Talk live to the people you care most about on FaceTime, Skype, Zoom or other video conferencing platforms. Or text them to share your appreciation and gratitude.

• Watch a TED Talk every day. The nonprofit organization claims more than 3,300 talks to “stir your curiosity."

• Watch a nature video. You may not be able to escape to the great outdoors, but you might meditate to that video of a babbling brook.

• Record a video of stories from your life to share with your kids and grandkids.

• Visit the places online that help you nurture your most passionate creative pastimes.

During normal times, frequent digital use and time spent in front of a screen often leads to problems. Face-to-face human contact is reduced, and screen time may displace healthier behaviors like exercising, says BJ Fogg, a behavioral scientist at Stanford University in Northern California.

While you may need a crowbar to get devices out of the hands of tweens and teens — ask any parent — a surprising number of older adults cannot seem to tear themselves away from the displays either. Americans age 65 and older spend nearly 10 hours a day consuming media on their computers, smartphones and televisions.

About 7 1/2 of those hours is spent in front of the TV. But older adults’ total screen time is 12 percent more than people ages 35 to 49 and a third more than those ages 18 to 34, according to Nielsen market research released in August 2019.

"The circumstances of the moment could take someone 50 and older and push them into the behavioral trends that have been plaguing those who are much younger,” says Cal Newport, a computer science associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.

Too much screen time also can result in physical problems: eye strain, insomnia and pain in the neck and shoulders. The fear about digital addiction is real, but the need to increase screen time is a present necessity.

"Unfortunately, screens are the best way to navigate and medicate what's going on, regardless of age,” says Gene Munster, a managing partner at Loup Ventures venture capital firm based in Minneapolis and New York. “Where it's most dangerous is an endless scroll through content on Netflix, Instagram” or elsewhere.

'Good’ vs. ‘bad’ screen time

Since it's now even harder to look away, what can we do about it?.

For starters, keep a perspective. It's important to recognize the difference between good screen time and bad screen time, says John Marick, chief executive of Consumer Cellular. The wireless reseller caters to the 50-plus market.

On the plus side: People are using technology to stay closer to loved ones through video conferencing. However, playing Solitaire on your iPad all day, becoming hooked on YouTube or working yourself into a frenzy because of the mountain of negative pandemic-related news is just the opposite.

Employ technology strategically for a very intentional and specific reason you deem valuable or important, Newport says.

"When you are deploying tech just as a psychological pacifier or for distraction or because you're bored, that can take you to bad places,” he says. Technology should allow you to do what you want, not be the objective itself.

And unplug before bedtime. If you want to read before bed, try a printed book or magazine. The blue light that's emitted from devices can rev you up rather than calm you down in anticipation of sleep.

Don't just sit there

If you are on screens a lot, make time to take a break.

“After staring at a screen all day, the last thing I want to do is spend more time watching a (bigger) screen. … Belting out a good standard in the morning does wonders for attitude and breathing!”

— Dave Arland, Carmel, Indiana

"After staring at a screen all day, the last thing I want to do is spend more time watching a (bigger) screen,” says Dave Arland, 56, a communications executive in Carmel, Indiana. For Arland, that means sitting down at the piano, something he did more when he was younger.

"I've found that belting out a good standard in the morning (after coffee) does wonders for attitude and breathing! Hope the neighbors don't mind,” he says.

Gary Arlen, who runs his own media and tech research and consulting firm in Bethesda, Maryland, isn't overly worked up about screen time.

"I'm more concerned about sitting still for too long. You must get up and walk around at least once an hour,” he says.

Meanwhile, Tim Kendall, chief executive of Moment, which produces an app of the same name to coach people into reducing smartphone usage, likens the time we spend on cellphones to junk food.

"There's actually some incredibly nutritious and amazing stuff on the phone and incredibly high utility stuff,” he says. “At the same time there is a lot of zero-calorie garbage and then things that are really bad for you."

Overdosing on social media and news fall into Kendall's toxic bucket.

Monitor yourself

If you suspect you're spending too much time in front of a screen, you probably are. To see just how much that is, you can consult the respective set of Screen Time and Digital Wellbeing tools on iPhone and Android devices, both found in the device Settings.

You'll see the total amount of time you've been on the phone, how often you picked it up, which apps and app categories you've been engaged in the most and so on. And you can set app and downtime time limits and also apply such limits to family members.

The use of all screens has spiked during the coronavirus. Munster expects habits to revert to something closer to normal once the crisis subsides though he predicts it will be more than before.

For now, people may have all the right reasons to spend more time on their devices. Just be mindful to set limits.

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